SOS: The Unethical Commission goes into session Monday night on the Case of the Grassroots Treasurer who went up against PG&E in a tight public power campaign. Come and support Carolyn Knee at the Ethics meeting at 5:30 p.m. in City Hall room 408
By Bruce B. Brugmann
Carolyn Knee, the poster girl for how the Ethics Commission is unethically treating treasurers of grassroots campaigns, goes once more before the Ethics Commission at a hearing starting at 5:30 p.m. Monday (July 9) in Room 408 in City Hall.
Carolyn and her attorney have reached a settlement of $267 with the commission's enforcement division, which is one per cent of the amount the staff originally recommended.
But public power supporters fear that the reason her case is on the agenda once again is because at least two commissioners intend to raise questions about the recommended amount.
Carolyn, a retiree on a fixed income, found herself threatened with $26,700 in fines by the Ethics Commission for several alleged violations of campaign finance laws during a random audit of San Franciscans for Affordable Clean Energy, the grassroots group that forced PG&E to the ballot in the 2002 public power campaign.
The point: SFACE raised peanuts during the campaign (a little more than $l00,000) while PG&E spent more than $2 million to defeat the initiative, $800,000 in the final days of the campaign (and PG&E didn't report this critical amount until nearly a month after the election.) Knee was fined l4 times what James Sutton, treasurer of PG&E's front group, was fined. And the commission hassled and hounded her for the past five years or so. (See Amanda Witherell's excellent story, "The ethics of Ethics," in the Guardian and on our website and an earlier Bruce blog headed "Free Carolyn Knee! Free Carolyn Knee from the Clutches of the Unethical Commission.")
Rick Knee, Carolyn's husband, gives a good summary of the case: "(l) most of the 'violations' alleged against her were not violations at all; (2) during and after the 2002 public power campaign, Carolyn made every reasonable effort to comply with the ethics and FPPC regulations, and she did not intentionally withhold, fabricate or misconstrue any required information; (3) she is a lay citizen, not a professional campaign worker; (4) the commission and staff's prosecution of the case has been a nighmare and is punishment enough. And rather than deterring scofflaws, it will serve only to discourage grassroots participation in the political process.
"The larger issue: Carolyn's case is not unique and underscores the need for a restructuring of the staff--especially the enforcement division--and redirection of the commission's work...Its staffers, including the chief investigator, ard attorneys fresh out of law school and looking to put notches in their belt. The result is that they waste a lot of time, resources, and taxpayer money by going after grassroots campaigns, thinking they are likely to offer the least resistance.
"What's needed is for the commission to help campaign treasurers and filers comply with the regulations through classes and one-on-one assistnace, ala what the IRS provides during tax-return filing time. In addition, the staff should be directed to prosecute the most egregious violations first. And the investigators should be veteran attorneys who actually want to work for the commission rather than use employment there as a career step.
Perhaps PG&E and the Ethics Commission got what it wanted: to send a neon lighted message to all future grassroots treasurers and campaigns that this is what happens when you take on PG&E. As Carolyn told the Guardian, " I would never do this again. It totally discourages grassroots campaigns. The IRS is like kindergarten compared to the Ethics Commission." B3